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A New Meaning to Ramadan for a Non-Muslim

Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, observed by Muslims worldwide. Growing up in Malaysia, I have always witnessed my fellow Muslim friends fasting and conducting more frequent prayers to feel closer to God during this period. The fast itself lasts from sunrise to sunset, spanning over 13 hours in Malaysia. Muslims would refrain themselves from food and drinks as to remind themselves of the suffering faced by those who are less fortunate, and detach themselves from unnecessary hedonistic pleasures to focus on their inner self. Thus, it is a period of both physical and spiritual purification.

In fact, Ramadan is not only something Muslims look forward to every year as a holy period that brings the faithful closer to God, the non-Muslims look forward to it for many reasons too. First of all, the Ramadan bazaars offer a myriad of unique Malay street food that can’t normally be found. Back in my Muslim-majority secondary school, our schooling hours were also shortened and that meant going home early! However, these are not the focus of this article. This article is about how I learned over the years the meaning of Ramadan as a non-Muslim, as it changed from appreciating bazaar visits and shorter schooling hours to understanding the context of spiritual togetherness and observing the practices of value sharing by my Muslim friends.   

I have fasted a few times over past Ramadans. My first attempt was back in secondary school where I only consumed a Chinese glutinous rice dumpling in the morning, and had no water at school. I heard that glutinous rice keeps you feeling full for a long time but I clearly underestimated my high metabolism rate as a growing teenager. I went home from school to a bowl of noodles my mum made and broke my fast after a half-day of trying to last a full fast. My Muslim friends at school laughed at me the next day when I updated them at school.  

My subsequent opportunities to fast came in college. I was in an international school where only half of the community were Muslims, but the student representatives worked closely with the school management and worked out arrangements to require those fasting to sign up for the day to have special sets of food served before dawn and after dusk. Food was still served to those who were not fasting at normal meal times. We were all encouraged to try fasting, but more importantly adhere to the sign-ups as an indication to the canteen operators to prepare food in prevention of food wastage. And so I joined my fellow Muslim friends to fast for one whole day each of the two years in college, full set without water even. To me, being deprived of food and drinks for more than 13 hours was hard to bear, and it really served as a reminder that there are plenty of unfortunate families out there who have little access to food, be it them living in war zones or in poverty. What I felt was merely 13 hours of what they could possibly feel every single day, and to get the context straight, I was always allowed to fill my stomach with freshly served food at dawn and at dusk but they didn't. The game was unfair as different rules are resources applied. Thus I question, to what extent can I or the fasting Muslims resonate with the actual sufferings of the less fortunate? And what actions follow after partially experiencIng their pain- do the more fortunate pray harder or do they tend to more charitable efforts? 

My most memorable fasting experience was 16-hour long in the UK during my uni days, when the daylight hour count was approaching its summer prime. My housemate was a devoted Muslim and we wanted to fast together as a moral support and in anticipation for a break-fast dinner which we prepared together. We wanted to try a few Malay recipes and that was our opportunity to experiment making bubur lambuk, a porridge (congee) dish cooked with spices and coconut milk commonly served during Ramadan. The weather in April 2022 was warm, making the lack of water much more bearable than in Malaysia. And I found myself revisiting the questions of why we attempted to fast in the first place. What comes out of it- fun, a challenge ticked off, a boast on social media, a guts cleanse or a spiritual purification? I read online that the first 10-12 days of fasting would typically detach your body of its reliance on physical needs, after which the cleansing of the mind would start. This meant my one-day attempts so far had only the benefits of good gut health, and for someone as indivisible with all hedonistic pleasures and evil thoughts as myself, I would never experience a proper soul cleanse unless I follow the full month-long course of fasting. 

As for Ramadan this year, I am in Malaysia, working in a Muslim-majority company. My department had organised a half-day volunteering event which involved orphans and some underprivileged children. It quickly hit me that I should pair fasting with volunteering, if I was to agree to fast again with my fellow Muslims, as it answered my earlier questions of what actionable plans come with the resonance of hunger (or a sense of suffering) faced by the less fortunate. Thus, I woke up at 5am, reheated my leftover dinner and ate when it was still pitch black outside. I took the train to Jakel Mall, one of the largest stores in town specialised in selling Malay traditional costumes and related products. Our first mission of the day was to help the children purchase a set of traditional costumes, in time for their Raya celebration. However, their caretakers were rather experienced and independent in getting the right sizes and colours for the kids so we had little to do other than having playful interactions with them. 

My metabolism rate was still fast so I got hungry and the lack of water showed no mercy either. And as we proceeded to where the second mission of the day was, the BNM Museum and Gallery, which was air-conditioned like a fridge, my body spent much energy keeping itself warm. We were tasked to bring the kids through the children’s gallery and some parts of the museum, where they would collect clues for a puzzle. Joyful laughters were spread along corridors as we led them around in the museum showcasing numismatic materials and exhibits. I had not had many interactions with children or teenagers in a long while and being able to share knowledge with them made me discover a fulfilling weekend purpose. I could see potential and dreams in all the kids who had shared about their ambitions and hobbies earlier. My younger self shared many similarities with them- all the talents in the arts and hopes to assume fun, creative jobs (before reality and a practical search for financial stability would eventually kick in). I felt touched watching the children’s innocence and how the kindness of their caretakers in managing their necessities and ensuring they are provided with education has trained them into independent, disciplined and loving individuals. As John C. Maxwell put it, “Nurturing has the ability to transform people's lives.”, I am certain that the kids who were once a ‘nobody’ will one day grow into ‘somebody’. 

The volunteering session arranged by my department ended in the early afternoon. Yet, that was not the end of my Ramadan social service as I had arranged another session with my team at Charisma Movement (CM) to volunteer at a local mosque. The CM Dynamic Journalism team had planned to collect some interview footage of us asking Muslims what Ramadan means to them. We wanted to create a street interview video which features Muslims’ personal understanding of Ramadan and how it enriches their spiritual selves. My fellow journalist, Amira, and I collected a range of perspectives around Masjid Jamek. Some viewed Ramadan as a chance to spiritually reach their Mighty God closer; some related fasting to an exercise to humble themselves; some shared how they utilised Ramadan as a period of reflection over past mistakes and shortcomings, all in the hopes of becoming someone kinder, less arrogant and more down-to-earth. Hearing their answers helped me find hints to my questions earlier- Ramadan is indeed a good chance of a spiritual cleanse as it builds you into someone more understanding, knowing that plenty of others out there suffer from the deprivation of food and hedonism just like you do. It sounds like an interesting exercise that trains your discipline and enhances your understanding of the true meaning of life where things go back to the basics. 

Our street interview was followed by another session of volunteering in the mosque itself. Yes, I was incredibly intense (and ambitious) to arrange a full day out while fasting, but it only felt justifiable when the action of fasting was coupled with social services that would amplify the sense of making an impact on the community. Also, since I have decided that I would only fast one day this year to not limit my calories intake and potentially stunt my gym progress too (lol), I convinced myself to just go all out for a day. My final mission of the day was to serve over 300 Muslims who were breaking fast at Masjid Jamek. Amira, Devitra (another rep from CM) and I put on a scarlet vest and started reorganising the public who took shelter from the pelting rain at the mosque foyer. We were responsible for finding the ‘guests’ suitable and ample spaces to settle down as our team would provide them with food to break their fast. It was common for Muslims to break their fast at mosques, so that they could carry out the optional Terawih prayers conducted every night during Ramadan. Thus, mosques tend to welcome the public and even offer free packed meals and water to whoever would break fast as a community there. 

The crowd was crazy because more people than usual needed to take shelter from the rain. We moved quickly among the people, passing plastic containers of rice and bottled water across the foyer. Sweaty and tired we were, but there was no excuse to slack as we had to ensure everyone had food before the break-fast hour. I must say it was an incredibly humbling experience as we were serving the public regardless of who they are since the mosque is a holy place that would host anyone that seeks shelter and a sense of community. Some might be homeless; some might be richer than me, but everyone got the same packed rice, no more and no less. Same goes to the amount of respect that was shared with them- everyone was to be treated with kindness and sweet smiles, because at the mosque (or before God), everyone is equal. The regular operators of volunteering at the mosque were even surprised that Devitra and I volunteered, given that we were of different religions and had literally no obligation to fast or help out. They were excited to see the willingness to serve and value-share we had shown as Malaysians. We were offered free packed rice as well when the Muslims broke fast, and oh man, the first gulp of water down my throat was the BEST thing after a whole day of work without food and water.

What turned out to be an exciting day for me was also a humbling, enriching experience where I got to learn about Ramadan and what it meant to those who observe it. I felt very much that I can now confidently explain how its meaning has changed for me as a non-Muslim and why I now feel people should use this chance to share with the bigger community. Will I fast again? Yes. And I will pair it with volunteering so as to bring value to the world when I fast, because why only focus on gut or personal spiritual cleansing when you can create impact and share kindness with those less privileged than you? Of course, volunteering should not be limited to the fasting month only and certainly not just ‘for the Gram’. It should be genuine, consistent and continual. Till next time, then.

From left: Euan, Amira, two ladies who are regular volunteers at Masjid Jamek, Devitra

By, Euan Thum, Journalist, Charisma Movement 23/24.

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1 Comment

Aizat Lee
Aizat Lee
Mar 25

Wholesome reflection!

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